Interview: Jonas Tallberg on the legitimacy of international organizations and the perceived crisis of global governance

In this new episode of our interview series, our host Jakob Angeli talks to Prof. Dr. Jonas Tallberg, professor of Political Science at Stockholm University.

Listen in, as they discuss the legitimacy of international organizations, whether we are currently witnessing a crisis in global governance as well as Tallberg’s favourite books both in and outside Political Science.

Find an abridged transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:

 [Photo: Stockholm University]

Jakob Angeli: You were already at the WZB for two months in 2012. Why did you choose to come back, and how come you are only staying with us for two days this time?

Jonas Tallberg: I have to say I am amazed that it’s been almost seven years since I stayed here for the full summer. I have been back at regular intervals, but it’s been a while since last time and coming here, I have to say, I realized I’ve missed it. It’s good to be back.

Angeli: What projects are you working on at the moment and what are your plans while you are here?

Tallberg: I’m currently working on three different projects. The project that consumes most of my time is a research program on legitimacy in global governance, short LegGov, which is a six year research program involving about 15 researchers in Gothenburg, Lund and Stockholm. We address three different aspects of legitimacy in global governance. We look at the sources of legitimacy, at processes of legitimation and de-legitimation as well as at the consequences of IOs having high or low legitimacy for their operation. That’s a project I am heavily engaged in at the moment and also the one that has been at the center of my attention during this visit. The second one is a project on the performance of IOs, where we essentially try to explore the policy making and the policy output of IOs as a way of getting at their capacity to deal with societal problems. And a third project is about to be concluded, which is a pan-European project on the reform of the Eurozone from 2010 to 2015.

Angeli: Can you already give us a glimpse of your findings?

Tallberg: We just very recently published a special issue with European Union Politics that came out from this project. One of the core findings of the research that I myself have been involved in is looking at the extent to which member states got what they wanted in the negotiations. Here I can say that Germany did not have as much success in getting what it wanted in the Eurozone reforms as is often made the case in the public debate. It often took a fairly extreme position on many of the issues and had to compromise a lot, so in the end there was quite a distance between Germany’s initial position and the eventual outcome. That doesn’t mean that Germany was not very influential in pulling other member states toward its outcomes as well, but it didn’t necessarily get what it wanted.

Angeli: Let us come back to the concept of legitimacy, which obviously also takes a central theoretical position in the most recent book you co-edited, Legitimacy in Global Governance: Sources, Processes, and Consequences. I have the feeling that often, this concept remains a rather vague term explained with reference to things such as trust or beliefs of a given group. If you were to break down the concept of legitimacy in three to four sentences for our listeners, how could this be done?

Tallberg: I agree that legitimacy is one of these contested concepts, and I think we have to recognize that there is a conceptualization and an operationalization level. At the conceptualization level, the way that Michael Zürn, myself and others within the LegGov project have worked with the concept is to say that it tries to capture the perception that an institution’s authority is appropriately exercised. This makes legitimacy in our understanding distinct from a normative understanding of the concept, which takes as a starting point theories about good and appropriate properties of an institution and derives normative conclusions about its value. So we adhere to a sociological conceptualization of legitimacy. Of course there are other conceptualizations out there. Some people would say that we would need to consider certain institutional qualities as inherently legitimate, such as fairness or authority.

Angeli: Why would you say it even matters whether IOs are perceived as legitimate or not? We could just go ahead and say that IOs are entities that have agency in their respective policy fields but beyond that, why would individual citizens care about an IO’s legitimacy?

Tallberg: This is one of the questions we are exploring in this research program, so I’d be happy to come back to you in three or four years’ time and give you a good list of findings on this issue. I think it is a reasonable expectation to think that legitimacy is useful for IOs and has some kind of impact on their problem solving capacity. At one level, we can expect that it would affect the ease with which they can gain resources in terms of funding or authority that they need to address certain problems. We would expect that governments whose electorates are very skeptical towards a particular institution would be less likely to confer resources and authority on that institution. Likewise, there is some evidence to suggest that legitimacy is useful if you want to elicit compliance. The alternative to legitimacy is to rely on coercion, which is a much more costly and painful effort.

Angeli: Much has been said and written about the current illiberal backlash, authoritarian turn or crisis of democracy; depending on what perspective you are taking. Would you say that there is indeed a crisis in global governance as such, or does the current crisis of representation not constitute a systemic one, also encompassing entities at the national level? To what extent do these phenomena stretch across various levels of governance and government?

Tallberg: That’s a very good question. I think you correctly conveyed the narratives we are confronted with at the moment. The narrative about anti-globalist populism in many countries, the narrative about a backlash against IOs, particularly against international courts, and the notion of an end of the liberal international order. But also the narrative that IOs as a particular form of global governance would be undergoing a legitimacy crisis because we are seeing the mushrooming of alternative forms like public-private partnerships, transnational governmental networks or other types of non-IO and non-hierarchical forms of global governance. But I want issue a cautionary warning here. The empirics that I have looked at don’t really support this very strong sense of a crisis for legitimacy in global governance. I fear that we might be extrapolating a general trend from a few very important and well-publicized cases such as the election and rhetoric of Donald Trump or Brexit. But if we look at the perceived legitimacy of a larger array of IOs over longer time periods, we don’t really see these patterns. If you think about two very authoritative organizations, the UN at the global level and the UN at the regional level, both of which are often said to suffer from a legitimacy crisis, it turns out that for both of these organizations the curve is essentially flat over time. There are some fluctuations, but there is no downward trend in either of these cases. And with regards to both organizations, citizens in member states actually tend to have more confidence in the UN and the EU and in what they do than in their national governments, which is fascinating. So if there is a crisis, it’s not necessarily a crisis of global governance but potentially rather one of domestic governance as such.

Angeli: To end on a lighter note, what is your favorite book in your field, and why?

Tallberg: That’s an exceptionally tricky question. There have been many inspiring books over the years. But I have to say I was formed at an early stage by works by Robert Keohane. I read them as an undergraduate student and both the way he studied world politics and the way he presented his work was very inspirational.

Angeli: And what was the last book unrelated to Political Science that you enjoyed reading?

Tallberg: It is a book in Swedish by August Strindberg, a classic. I had reason to read this a couple of weeks ago, it is called The confession of a fool and it is kind of an autobiography in the sense that it is a book that he wrote at a point in time where he thought he would be accused of lunacy by his wife. It is exceptionally well-written and engaging. Warmly recommended!

Angeli: Thank you very much for this talk and hopefully see you again soon, here at the WZB or elsewhere.

Tallberg: Thank you.

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